The return of Ali Abdullah Salih to Yemen took many observers by surprise. After his miraculous survival of an assassination attempt on June 3 of this year (the circumstances of which are still not clear), and remaining for more than three months in Saudi Arabia for treatment, then convalescence, then searching for ways to defuse the “Yemeni crisis” politically—his return has come, to mark both the declining opportunities for peaceful solutions in Yemen and the increasing tendency toward escalation, which may result in no less than a civil war. This is for a number of reasons, the most important of which are worth noting here.
Salih still enjoys the loyalty of the Yemeni Republican guard—the best equipped and best trained military unit, led by his son—as well as the intelligence and security apparatus, led by his nephew, and certain military divisions to which he has appointed close officers to key positions. Likewise, he continues to draw support from some tribal alliances (though increasingly less so), spread geographically from the vicinity of Sanaa and southward to the center of the country, as well as from the “business men,” financiers, and employees that have benefited during his long rule and who therefore have a major stake in his remaining in power for the rest of his years. Consequently, he does not consider himself to be in a weakened position that would necessitate his “abdication” at the present time.
The opposition, which had already dismissed — like Salih — most of the mediation efforts, was not able to benefit from his absence over the past three months to make his departure a fait accompli. Although possessing the initiative in the streets, and despite broadening its bloc politically with support from most of the major tribes and the defection of some army divisions and units to its side, the opposition has not been able to tilt the balance of power decisively in its favor for the following two reasons:
— The absence of a common platform among its factions, and the difficulty of accepting compromise “deals” that would mean assenting to Salih’s security, political, and economic staff remaining in power in exchange for the president’s departure—with immunity.
— The absence of leadership capable of gaining broad popular, party, and tribal support, or representing the whole alliance. Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar (leader of the Hached tribes and son of the founder of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform) does not represent an acceptable alternative for many local (and foreign) parties, while General Ali Mohsen (the highest ranking officer who deserted Salih, announced support for the revolution, and deployed his forces to protect Tagheer, or Change, Square in the capital where the opposition demonstrates) does not have unanimous or even majority support, because he remained with Salih as one of the most prominent members of his staff until March 2011. No leader of the Yemeni Socialist party can become a central pillar that would attract the majority of the opposition forces as a result of past disputes, weakness, and regional coloring. Of course, there has not yet been enough time for a new progressive elite to emerge from the popular, student movement with broader popularity and legitimacy. All this leaves behind the feeling, possessed by the mediators and some of the reluctant Yemeni forces, that no alternative to Salih is yet “ready.”
For the past few months, the situation in Yemen has therefore seemed to be heading toward stagnation, at a time of escalating tensions and sporadic clashes. In spite of this, signs of self-restraint and refraining from easy recourse to weapons remain present, in a country with a very high number of guns per capita. However, this may not last long without any prospect of an acceptable political settlement. And there are already signs that reinforce the fear of deterioration.
— Dissolution of the ties consecrated by the state, as its centralization disappears. The divisions that have occurred may become more like the schisms of Somalization, and not like the historical North-South divide.
— Crimes of the regime against the opposition demonstrators, and the reciprocated attacks between regular military forces and attendant crossfire, have made reconciliation extremely difficult.
— The inability of the two mediating states, Saudi Arabia and the United States, to establish any bridge between the concerned parties, leaving matters unchecked while Riyad and Washington focus on their security and strategic concerns in isolation from Yemen’s domestic conditions. As Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with its own issues of succession and worried about the winds of the Arab Spring, the Yemen portfolios are no longer collected in the hands of one single authority. This likely explains Salih’s freedom of movement and his return to Yemen, after Saudi hesitating over whether to make him stay. The United States — which monitors the status of al-Qaeda (which itself benefited from Salih’s overemphasis) in the south, and focuses on the necessity of preventing the transformation of the vital region on the entrance to the Red Sea and opposite the Horn of Africa into a center for Islamic Jihadists — does not seem ready or able to exert additional efforts to arrive at a political solution in Sanaa. And the emerging initiative that the vice president spoke about is not yet clear in its parameters.
Despite this, efforts by the opposition continue, both to show the size of the popular movement that wants the fall of the president and his regime, and to continue putting pressure on him — and sending a message through this to Saudi Arabia and the United States — that there is no place in Yemen’s future “for someone who has ruled the country for decades, and failed catastrophically at nearly ever level, and there is likewise no place for someone who murdered hundreds of demonstrators over the past six months,” which is what the younger leaders of the demonstrations say.
On this basis, it is possible to define the current conditions in Yemen as a race between nonviolent change — or nearly nonviolent — and war. This means, among other things, that there is no possibility of stability as long as Ali Abdullah Salih remains perched in power, refusing to abandon his position—and that any initiative that does not make his departure the very first item will not succeed any more than its predecessors…
Translated by Jeff Reger